By Judge Therese DaSilva, Workers’ Compensation Judge, Oakland District Office
Judge Jane Madsen is the sole Workers’ Compensation Judge in Eureka’s DWC District Office, a scenic coastal city in northern California, just 100 miles south of Oregon. As of July 1, 2021, the DWC Eureka office has gone completely virtual. That is, all hearings are held by conference call and all trials proceed by either conference call or Lifesize Video Conferencing. We caught up with Judge Madsen at the statewide Judges’ Training.
DWC Eureka is unique. How so?
We really are remote! The Eureka office covers Humboldt and Del Norte counties, where we have a small population but vast area. Humboldt County’s population is 150,000 and Del Norte has about 30,000 people. The largest city in Humboldt County is Eureka with a population of 29,000. Together, the counties are well over 5,000 square miles. Only five attorneys who regularly practice at the Board live locally. Everyone else is from somewhere else, primarily the Redding area. With virtual hearings, most attorneys do not miss driving 150 miles one way over a dangerous two lane road from Redding to Eureka. Many of the applicants live down long dirt driveways/roads that can get muddy or snowy.
It is difficult here to find medical treatment. I have yet to see a viable MPN in these counties. It is a struggle to even find a treating doctor. Our leading carriers such as State Fund recognize these problems and work with them. Some carriers and attorneys not familiar with the area produce MPN lists that are not viable, resulting in delays in getting treatment for injured workers since many of those disputes have to be brought to the Board for resolution.
There are also laws applied here that may not be seen in more populated areas. For example, many of the fire departments in both counties are volunteer. There are particular laws such as Labor Code Section 4458 that provides for maximum indemnity rates for volunteer firefighters, even if they are not maximum earners.
In Humboldt County, the leading industries are dairy, logging and cannabis. Emerging issues in the cannabis industry include injuries common to any agricultural industry (ag industry is the usual expression), but also different hazards such as exposure to violence. Del Norte County has Pelican Bay State Prison. Many of the employees at the prison live in Oregon, presenting unique challenges in obtaining treatment. Del Norte County also produces most of the potted lilies sold in the spring throughout the United States. In addition, there are 13 federally recognized tribes of first peoples. I have learned a lot from litigating cases with the different cultures present in our community.
Humboldt County is growing and looking forward to an increasing population base. A Norwegian company is in the process of building a large salmon farm on the Bay. Another company is installing the world’s longest sub-sea fiber optic cable running from Singapore to Eureka—10,000 miles long! Humboldt State has been designated the third Cal Poly University.
I am sure our small EUR WCAB department will see changes along with the rest of the community. The COVID crisis has demonstrated that DIR is able and willing to adapt processes to ensure efficient response to changes in circumstances. I look forward to remaining in this area and serving its unique population as long as I am able.
How long have you been involved in virtual hearings?
I have participated in Lifesize trials ever since Lifesize was instituted several years ago. Judge LeCover and I took on lien trials one day a week for the DWC in Anaheim. The attorneys and lien representatives learned to appreciate the advantages of having remote judges help reduce the backlog. Judge Spitzer had a great set up. Her staff would coordinate the parties in the Anaheim hearing room and set up the video connection with a court reporter standing by. I have also tried cases in San Francisco when there was a shortage of judges. Again, the support staff was very helpful there. Currently, I am helping out in Salinas and San Luis Obispo.
Is it more difficult to judge credibility in a virtual trial?
I do not think a virtual trial impairs my ability to judge credibility. It is true the ability to see body language is not the same. It is also more challenging to sense the atmosphere in the room. That being said, judging credibility involves a combination of factors. I can hear the tone of voice and see the person’s facial reactions. If an in–person trial involves all people wearing masks, it may be better to see the witness’s entire face remotely on video even if I cannot see a jiggling foot.
When judging credibility there are other factors to consider beyond the demeanor of a witness. I consider whether there are inconsistencies within the medical records, inconsistencies with prior testimony or statements made in police reports. All of those factors carry at least as much weight as what I could learn if I were in the same room with the parties.
Do you miss anything not going to an office?
I miss the connections that arise from informal conversations with staff and the parties. Many workers need a chance to tell the story of their injury or share the particular cultural values that influence choices they make. Judge Hink has instituted weekly LifeSize meetings with all the Santa Rosa staff. Those meetings are very helpful in staying connected and help me to feel I am not alone on an island.